Transit systems nationally — including UTA — beg Congress for emergency pandemic aid

Unlike in many other states, the Utah Transit Authority has avoided layoffs and sales tax receipts are strong

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Masks are required on UTA buses, as shown on a bus in downtown Salt Lake City on Sept. 24, 2020. UTA joined major transit districts nationally on Wednesday to plead for more emergency aid from the federal government to keep afloat during the pandemic.

The nation’s major transit systems — including the Utah Transit Authority — rallied together Wednesday to plead for Congress to pass more emergency pandemic aid, saying they need it to avoid deep service cuts that they argue would be catastrophic to economic recovery.

The UTA, however, seemed to be less needy than most in that national online rally.

It reported less-drastic current or planned service cuts — and has avoided layoffs that others said are common. And while most systems say they have been deeply hurt by lower local sales tax receipts that provide most of their revenue, UTA actually saw an increase in them.

Still, “I just want to say how critical it is that a COVID package passes during this session,” said UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot in a national online news conference. “It’s a meaningful step toward keeping transit prevalent in our society today and across this country.”

(Photo courtesy of UTA) Carolyn Gonot, executive director of the Utah Transit Authority.

That call came as a bipartisan group of rank-and-file senators including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has been making progress with a push to pass a compromise $908 billion relief package before the end of the year, which would include $45 billion in aid to airlines and transit.

Leaders of 11 major transit systems nationally on Wednesday said that aid is essential to them.

“Without federal aid, we may be forced to make cuts of up to 40% on subways and buses, and up to 50% on the commuter rail routes — not to mention the layoff of 9,500 of our heroic colleagues,” said Patrick J. Foye, Chairman and CEO of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“These drastic actions will kill our national economic recovery as local transit systems are the heartbeat of local economies,” he said. “Transit agencies across the nation have been devastated by the pandemic. Its impact on MTA ridership and revenues surpasses even that of the Great Depression here in New York.”

Robert M. Powers, general manager of San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit, said falling ridership and sales tax receipts have created a $210 million deficit for his agency this fiscal year and next. He said BART has reduced service and offered early retirement incentives to prod 40% of its workforce to leave, and it needs federal help to keep afloat.

Debra A. Johnson, CEO and general manager of the Denver Regional Transportation District, said it has cut some salaries and furloughed workers. It reduced services to 60% of pre-pandemic levels. With dropping sales tax revenue and without more federal aid, it will soon need to lay off 350 workers.

Meanwhile, UTA currently is keeping its service at 91% of pre-pandemic levels — higher than what many others reported on Wednesday — and has budgeted to keep it at those levels next year. It has avoided layoffs.

The UTA Board at a Wednesday meeting also heard a report that shows it is not in quite as difficult financial straits as some others.

While most transit agencies say the sales tax that provides a lion’s share of their funding is down, UTA reported that its sales tax receipts have been 2.7% higher than originally budgeted for the year — and were nearly 16% higher in October. Officials credited that to Utah’s economy not being hit as hard as other places, plus a boost in spending from earlier federal relief checks residents received.

Sales tax is budgeted to provide about 67% of UTA revenue next year.

Of course, UTA faces other challenges from COVID-19. Its ridership for the year is down by 45% (including pre-pandemic months). In just October, it was down by 59%. Fare revenue for October was 45% lower than the same month a year earlier.

While fares usually provide about 11% of overall revenue, it is projected to fall to just 5.8% next year. Gonot said emergency federal funding has made up for such losses.

UTA also each month figures how much it subsidizes each ride beyond what fares cover. It had aimed to keep that subsidy per ride this year to about $5.88, but in October it was $11.15, or 90% higher than original goals.

Gonot said all that shows UTA, like other transit agencies, needs continuing federal emergency help.

“We’ve actually seen increases in some of our service needs, particularly in corridors that are serving the lower income communities and those essential workers,” she said.

Foye, head of New York’s MTA, said, “There will be no economic recovery regionally or nationally without significant investment in mass transit. This is not a red or blue issue. It’s a jobs issue.”

He added, “In order to ensure the health care workers, grocery workers, first responders and other essential personnel can continue to get to work and beat this pandemic, we need substantial federal funding.”